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The TRON: Legacy Debate

Posted by NerdyShow on January 20, 2011

When we were nominating and ranking candidates for our Top 20 Nerdy THINGS of 2010 list, a debate came up about the placement of TRON: Legacy in regards to how high it was in Hex and I’s rankings.  Colin, our videographer and guest commentator (particularly when Bioware is concerned) was for nominating the soundtrack, but not the film. Our film correspondent, Matt Spill responded with a letter which we read in Legacy‘s defense during our 2010 Final Boss episode.  But that’s only half the story.  Colin wasn’t able to join us for the TRON segment of our discussion, so he and Hex opted to have it out via e-mail – Hex for, Colin against.  There’s a schism amongst nerds about the success and failings of Legacy, even within Nerdy Show… let the games begin!

– Cap

Oh yeah, and beware!  Below there be SPOILERS.


HEX: I grew up loving the TRON movie.  It was a staple of my childhood, and actually helped spark the interest in computing that I have today.  It inspired, and that alone is worth celebrating.  Is it the best movie ever? No. The story is predictable and rather two-dimensional, but it was imaginative.  It created this unique world on the electronic level that still leaves the viewer wondering what else could happen?

What TRON: Legacy attempted to do was to build upon the mythos developed not only by the original film, but the twenty years that had built up between the two.  It subtly creates a mythology, binding itself to the modern world, as well, utilizing pastiches from our childhood to further ingrain it as more than just a movie, but a film.  Today, the flashy thing to utilize is 3D in movies.  This film does more than just use the third-dimension, it chooses WHEN to use it, allowing it to be more than just an extra selling point, but an element of the film itself.  By giving the Grid three dimensions and the “real world” just two, it invokes an experience we’ve only heard tale of: seeing Wizard of Oz in the theater for the first time, and when the doors open upon Oz seeing that technicolor for the first time.  The viewer is challenged to relate the Grid as a modern-day Oz, Wonderland, or Never Never Land: the next realm of the imagination, with Sam as our unwitting Dorothy.

Time and again, the film invokes literary elements and other pastiches to try to elevate itself: CLU being the dark and orderly yang to Flynn’s brilliant and carefree yin presenting the idea of dualism; Sam’s path reflecting that of the Hero’s Path drawn out by Joseph Campbell, to the point that Flynn even begins to take on the guise of his Obi-Wan, our generation’s most poignant Hero’s Journey; even the direct literary references in the library, the Flynn obviously the self-sacrificial Dostoyesky hero and Quorra the vibrant Verne hero.  My favorite pastiche had to be when Sam was first in the duel, and was cut.  His blood revealed to everyone that Sam was, in fact, not a program, but a user – one of their forsaken gods.  This is very reminiscent to Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, where two British heroes go out and discover a forgotten kingdom, to rule it.  One takes on the guise of their god, rather than a king, which is all and good, until he bleeds, proving him a man in disguise, causing his downfall.  The reversal of this is a unique take on the devise, once again challenging the viewer to open their mind to what else may be presented.  These are just a few of the numerous devises I was able to catch on a single viewing.

I could go on how I applaud the subtle “Open Source v. Proprietary Software” message at the very beginning, the beautiful and soulful soundtrack presented by Daft Punk, the phenomenal job at which the first few acts revisited the original film with such precision to detail.  What I’m most excited about this film, however, is seeing it again and looking for what else I missed: was there another element to the dark twin that I missed? How closely does Sam follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey? There is so much detail and thought put into this film that, at first glance, one could mistake the story as a shallow retelling of the same story over and over.  However, that’s what A New Hope was: the same old fantasy, just splashed with a new coat of imagination.  How is it not that with this film?


COLIN: First of all let me put a couple of points forward.  I will not argue against the visuals or auditory experience of TRON: Legacy, they were amazing and I’m sure that they’ll win multiple Oscars in those categories.  Also, when I saw this movie I did not expect anything of it – I didn’t go into it thinking that it would be any sort of “digital Jesus” – Kristin Frenzel.  I just wanted to have fun.  And I did, at the beginning… but as the movie continued I began to find myself bored–even when the razzle dazzle was exploding all around me, I just didn’t care.  And I’ll tell you why.

First of all, Hex, I recognize that watching the original TRON was a very formative experience, and I will not deny that from you.  There are many films that we all love from our childhood, and you connected to that one, great.  I can’t argue against that.  But at the same time, while you had this experience with the original TRON and consequently this new film, TRON: Legacy, I cannot say that I shared your appreciation.  Let me make this clear, I’m not trying to argue that my experience was better/more true than your’s, you just so happened to like it, I just so happened to not.  So let’s begin.

In response to your numerous allusions to literary and film devices: You relate the 3D transition in TRON: Legacy to when Dorothy walks into Oz for the first time.  Sure.  Did it have the same impact?  I don’t know.  I remember watching The Wizard of Oz for the first time (this was obviously long after color television and movies had become the standard) and when Dorothy opened that door into Oz, seeing color for the first time there was a sense of wonderment, a sense of awe. In TRON: Legacy, Sam sits down at the desk, the desk where his father used to work, he types in the command, we all know what’s going to happen, the laser warms up and zaps him from behind, the screen does this cool 3D effect…then it cuts to black. Cuts to black!? We’re not sucked through a portal? Nope. We just land in 3D space, and even then its a copy of the same room, not much depth, not much spectacle.  Dorothy WALKS into color, there is a stark transition from Black and White to color.  There is some depth, the creators really want us to know this color thing is special (which audiences had already seen, Wizard of Oz was NOT the first film to utilize color–its how they used color.  Which TRON: Legacy could have done, considering we’ve all seen 3D films, but how could they have used the technology to make it seem like something new).  In TRON: Legacy the transition from 2D to 3D seemed like an afterthought in its execution, even though it was probably the intention from the beginning.

I did notice the literary references, specifically looking for them after you had made this point in the 2010 Final Boss episode, however I wish that they took these things further.  Yes its great, the writers have read things, but does everything have to be so surface?  You point out the dualistic nature and the Yin-Yang corollary between CLU and Flynn, great.  This would have been a really neat look at the two sides of Flynn, the light and the dark, the imperfect and the perfect…but there is no depth, just “good and bad,” “creation and destruction.”  CLU is created to search for perfection, and ultimately turns on Flynn.  Throughout the entire film there is no character development for either of these people, they are strictly flat, surface, boring.  CLU is going to stop at nothing to destroy Flynn and get out.  Flynn just wants to go with the flow and is remorseful for his creation.  There you go, that’s it.  Just because the characters represent the Yin-Yang does not mean they have to be black and white?…  Also in the philosophy of Taoism and Wei Wu Wei (where the symbol for the Yin-Yang derives) you notice the white dot in the black, and the black in the white, no one can truly walk the path of either philosophy, there is a bit of Wu in everyone’s Wei and vice verse.  But in Tron: Legacy, CLU is strictly Wei —only reaching for one goal, there is no downside to his obsession, he has just a one-track mind…not an interesting villain.

You bring up Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and the blood-God device.  Sure, this could be an allusion to that short story, but as a writer how else could you effectively communicate to The Grid that an all powerful User is among them?  I’m not discounting the point, but many writers may have come up with the same idea, without reading another writer’s work.  Secondly, its not a true reversal of the pastiche–when he is discovered to be a User, the programs boo Sam and are delighted that CLU is about to destroy him on his bad ass light cycle, they do not exalt him.

Oh the beginning, and you mean the NOT so subtle message about Open Source v. Proprietary Software- that lead nowhere, had no purpose to be in the movie, and did not further the overall story whatsoever?  And who was Cillian Murphey’s character?  I thought he was going to play into the film with how they were talking about him the board room, etc…. Nope.  Just a weird cameo.

Thank you for bringing up A New Hope in relation to this film.  Yes, the original Star Wars took the old fantasy genre and threw some effects on it and called it new, I agree.  But since you brought it up, let me use A New Hope to explain some of my problems with TRON: Legacy.  The biggest problem that I had with TRON: Legacy was that the rules were not defined.  In ANY good science fiction novel, movie, story, etc. the rules of the world are defined – it lets the reader accept how that world works and creates tension.  The force is a perfect example, Obi-Wan explains to Luke that there is a mystical binding energy in the universe that certain people can control, check.  The opening crawl of A New Hope defines exactly what is going on in the galaxy at that very moment, we know that the rebellion is fighting an oppressive empire: struggle. Check. (I’m not saying that TRON needed an opening crawl, but with how much fucking exposition is in that movie, you’d think they could have snuck in what was really happening in the city with the so-called rebellion against CLU as opposed to Flynn saying “Some people aren’t happy with CLU, we can wait.” And the random scarred program trying to talk to Zues about rebellion…let’s SEE IT).

In A New Hope there are interesting and three dimensional characters, defined not by what book they relate to, but what they do and say, check.  In no way did we get these rules of the world laid out for us in TRON: Legacy.  I have no idea what’s going on in the city, I don’t know how the Grid works, what these programs do, or what Flynn can do in this universe.  That’s a big one.

At first he can’t do anything, he’s sitting in his tower, eating…roasted pig? How did that get there? What?  Okay he can effect the world by fixing Quorra and looking at her damaged code, gotcha, but overall I wouldn’t consider him even close to a ‘god’ in the Grid based on his actions.  Then… at the end, when its most convenient, he can cause a wave of energy that pulls CLU back from the portal, saving Sam and Quorra.  Where was that magic when Tron was getting his ass kicked by CLU? Where was that magic when the ISOs were getting purged huh?  Speaking of which, strangely enough, I fully understood the ISOs and that subplot, I don’t get why people were confused.  I think mostly people just wanted more because they could sense a good story and wanted to latch onto something in TRON: Legacy that had some tension and stakes.  But I digress, the rules were firmly established in A New Hope, the story was clear, and it just seemed like Flynn’s so-called “powers” came into play at the right time because the writers thought it would be cool.  But we’re not talking about A New Hope we’re talking about TRON: Legacy.

Some questions for you Hex, one of the rules that was defined in the movie was that your disk was your life.  Gotcha.  Another was that the ISOs were exceptionally important, a new life form.  Something that could change the face of humanity.  Something really, really important.  And yet, Quorra, the last ISO, hands Flynn her disk, flippantly runs off, and creates a diversion so Sam and Flynn can escape.  But her disc is safe, so everything should be fine, right?  Fast forward to the end of the film.  Who’s disk is used as Flynn’s fake?  Yep, Quorra’s.  So which is it? Your body, or your disc?  If its her body then Flynn would never have let her run away from him (from as much as I could glean from his character, at least that part was clear, the ISOs are important).  Or is it your disc? You know, the one she just left as a fake.  Its got to be one or the other.

Also, what the fuck happened with Tron the character?  I know he was re-purposed, cool twist, but…how did he realize that what he was doing was wrong?  Why did he switch sides at the end and randomly attack CLU?  Was it because the writers didn’t know what to do?

Overall, TRON: Legacy wasn’t a digital Jesus, far from it.  And I understand the argument that some movies are just meant to be fun action films that should just be enjoyed, don’t think too much.  I’m all for it.  But my problem is that TRON: Legacy isn’t one of those types of movies–people may argue that it is, but its not.  And its not because it didn’t want to be, the writers tried exceptionally hard to make TRON: Legacy a thinking man’s action film.  Why else would they include all of the literary references?  Why would there be a moral dilemma concerning the genocide of the ISOs?  Why would there be so much digital vernacular? Allusions to Zen philosophy? Genetic evolution?  They wanted people to think while they watched this movie.  So you can’t be mad at people when they do!  TRON: Legacy is not just your run of the mill action movie, I think that it would have been better if it was!  The action portions were great, the problems arose during the other 40% of the movie when it got bogged down with so much exposition and awkward scenes that didn’t effectively explain anything, or raise the stakes, or create tension.  Did anyone truly think that they were ever in any danger?  The actors sure didn’t.  Even in sit-back-and-enjoy action films you don’t know if the main character is actually going to defuse the bomb, or make it to the girl, or stop the bad guy.

So I can’t look at TRON: Legacy like just another sci-fi action film, because it isn’t, and I don’t believe it was meant to be.  TRON: Legacy was an audio/visual spectacle that just happened to have really, really sloppy writing.  You can’t blame audiences for not enjoying a poorly written movie, especially when they’re asked by the creators to think about it.  Jeff Bridges tried to explain it as “digital jazz, man.”  And if TRON: Legacy is digital jazz, I feel that the writers left out too many notes.


Now’s your turn!  Sound off – what did you think of TRON: Legacy?

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